Costas Katsonis & Elena Kyriakides

Reflections of Cyprus History in novels for children and young adults


Cyprus, a member state of the European Union since May 2004, is a Mediterranean island with a turbulent history; it has endured conquests by numerous nations, and has been under the rule of Assyrians, Egyptians and Persians, Arabs and Templars, becoming part of the Venetian, Ottoman and finally the British Empire, before its independence in 1960, after years of resistance to British rule. However, the unstable political climate from 1963 and the conflicts between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities of the island led to further turmoil, with the Greek junta organising a coup and Turkey invading Cyprus in the summer of 1974; the events of that summer have been dominating the political, cultural, economical and social life on the island till this day, although there are now strong expectations and hopes for a peaceful solution through intensive negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations; literature whether addressing adults or children was bound to be influenced by this historical landmark, the worst disaster that the island experienced in its recent history.

In this paper we focus on fifteen collections that revolve around the 1974 Turkish invasion and its implications on every aspect of life on the island; these include in total 126 short stories by 16 different writers. We will concentrate on the themes that emerge from these stories and provide some examples, before referring to the implications of this production on Cyprus literature and educational practice.  

Thematic strata in the collection of short stories

The focus of the Cypriot children’s literature writers on the unprecedented and traumatic experience of the coup d’état and the invasion is not uncommon for the literary production of countries with turbulent political circumstances. In his review of the tendencies and developments of the Greek children’s literature over the decade of 1970-1980, Anagnostopoulos (1988) observes an abundance of books referring to the dictatorship and the subsequent consequences of the political events of the period on the history of contemporary Greece. The books of the period after 1974 produced in Cyprus, often contain the elements of personal testimonies, emotional discharge or transcription of events; while in some the quality is often questionable, the period has worthwhile works to demonstrate, in which the writers succeed in moving aesthetically and emotionally younger and older audiences.

In the fifteen collections of short stories that we present in this paper, we have identified four thematic strata:

a.    cultivation of love for democracy in short stories inspired by the coup d'état that preceded the invasion
b.    cultivation of pacifism and anti-war stances as well as preservation of the memories of the occupied lands
c.    reference to the loss of beloved ones and the preservation of the memory of the missing persons
d.    endorsement of the peaceful coexistence of the Greek and Turkish community on the island and the encouragement of hope and positive belief of a settlement of the Cyprus problem.

a) Cultivation of love for democracy in short stories inspired by the coup d'état that preceded the invasion

The first texts on the Cyprus tragedy addressed to children appear initially in the children’s journal ‘Pediki Hara’; the intentions of their creators are clearly to express their emotional turmoil and their rage regarding the events, while simultaneously they try to cultivate love for democracy and peace, and the hope of a swift return to the occupied areas.

The book The wolves and the Red Riding hood by Maria Pyliotou, published in 1976, is one of the first books for children written immediately after the events and the emotions of the people that witnessed the coup d’état and the invasion are vividly depicted. Through the life of a little girl, her parents and her friend we are transferred to the peaceful days and then the anxiety just before the invasion, as well as the days in the refugee camps.  Similar references to the period before the coup d’état, its specific day of its manifestation and the first reactions of adults and children are found in novels by Maria Avraamidou, Filissa Hadjihanna, Panos Panagides, Maroula Tzouva-Paikkou and Kostas Katsonis.

In these novels we are often provided with a snapshot of the experiences of families and their specific members, not only of Greek Cypriots but also of Turkish Cypriots, as is the case in Flowers and Dreams by Filissa Hadjihanna.  Furthermore, actual events and true stories are reproduced in the story lines of novels; in Maria was seven years old Kostas Katsonis bases his novel on the true story of a little girl killed by stray bullets. The priest of the village remembers her burial:

That day I was all of a sudden summoned to the cemetery. The people that supported the coup d’etat bearing guns, came to my house and took me. They were looking for a space to bury the dead. With a digger they had with them, they opened a big whole at one end. They had carried the dead in a lorry. Young most of them, in pieces, unrecognizable. I though some were still alive, God forgive me. Suddenly I saw the dead body of a little girl. I new her; her name was Maria. I took her in my hands. I buried her in the edge of the tomb as would be appropriate…”.  

In this excerpt a tragedy is documented, often repeated in wars throughout time and space, the tragedy of mass graves. Vagianos underlines this function of literature:

when it comes to historical eras, literature provides a few or many (historical) facts regarding each period it refers to. That is, ever since saved and explicable facts have conclusively replaced fables and have become elements of historical importance, from that point onwards literature, as poetry or prose, begins to acquire assessable historicity. It becomes a historical source."   (1995: 97)

b) Cultivation of pacifism and anti-war stances as well as preservation of the memories of the occupied lands

The cultivation of anti-war stances is a common thread in all the novels of the period, together with the effort to preserve the memories of the occupied area of the island. In Spitokalivaki mou by Kika Poulheriou, a little girl contemplates:

“Our war is something different. It shakes the earth from its foundations, it starts fires, it breaks down houses, it mows people(…)War is a big beast, a beast big and voracious. How can anyone handle this! War! Cruel war! Who told you we loved you and you turned on like a fire upon our little blue homeland! I hate you war, I hate you so much… You took my father, Mirtoula’s father, Stella’s little brother. You took our toys, our laughter, our joy. All children hate you. Yes, they told me. We all hate you. Go away! Go away!”  (1976: 12).  

 It is interesting to note that in the effort to cultivate anti- war stances, the issue of the effect of the invasion upon animals is also negotiated.  In Alasios, Andre and his little dog, Maroula Tzouva-Paikkou describes the beautiful peaceful days before the invasion when the hero of the story played with his little dog, and the evolvement of their relationship in the difficult days when child and dog became refugees.

c) Reference to the loss of beloved ones and the preservation of the memory of the missing persons

It is in the simple and everyday details of life that the drama of having a loved one identified as a missing person becomes unbearable. In Maria Theodosiadou’ s short story A pot of basil the hero holds tight a pot that her missing fiancée had given her, the only thing she carries with her as she leaves her home:

“A pot of basil! Full of the sweet memories of our first and unique love. Full of dreams we made with Kostakis about our future. This is the pot I hold tight as I follow in the path of refugees. I am carrying this time my warmest prayers for my beloved one, not the cool water of our well, but with the boiling hot tears of pain from becoming rootless and from the distress. Irrigated however with the sweet tears of patience and of sweet hope of return… The pot with the basil will keep me company! I will keep it bushy and alive until my love returns, and he will return, I am sure”.  (1981: 89).

Many other writers refer to the issue of missing people, each from a different standpoint. In Erene Tsoulli’ short story The little horologer (1980)a little boy, who looses his father during the invasion, decides upon graduation from primary education to become a horologer so as to survive and be able to support his fatherless family. The need for children to work in order to help financially their families is also features in Spiros Epaminondas short story Isolation.

d) Endorsement of the peaceful coexistence of the Greek and Turkish community on the island and the encouragement of hope and positive belief of a settlement of the Cyprus problem

With no exceptions, all short stories we refer to refer to the hope of returning to the areas lost. The writers depict the feelings of the displaced people, both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, who lost their properties after the invasion.

The Cypriot writers cultivate through their work during this period love and appreciation of peace, and ask children to work together so as to prevent war and establish peace in their lives. This is a fundamental function of children’s literature world wide; in her article Helping children think about peace, Gail Goss discusses a collection of children's books sharing the theme of war's effects and discusses ways to encourage children to think about peace, referring among others to the book Faithful Elephants: A true story of Animals, People and War by Yukio Tsuchiya (1988).

Another interesting example if the book A Bridge of Children’s Books (2002), where Jella Lepman narrates her personal history of surviving the Nazis leaving for London and returning to Germany to establish the world wide acclaimed International Youth Library in Munich; realizing that children in post war Germany were traumatized by the dreadful experience of the war she launched the library in the idyllic location of Blutenburh Castle providing children with an emotional refuge and a window to imaginary worlds. Today the library archives more than half a million books in more than 130 languages and almost 10,000 new titles are added each year. Jella Lepman later founded ΙΒΒΥ, the International Board on Books for Young People, which in its 55 years of being has been restlessly promoting literature for children all over the world, including Cyprus via its national section the Cyprus Association on Books for Young People.

Thus, in the short stories this paper refers on, the issues of peaceful Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot coexistence, with nostalgic references of such peaceful moments in the past, the improved Greek Turkish relations, and the hope and optimism of returning to the occupied lands in nonviolent and harmonious conditions are underlined in the work of many writers. In these short stories Turkish Cypriots are distinguished from the Turkish military that invaded the island causing pain and suffering to all its inhabitants. Maria Theodosiadou describes the problems of a family at a refugee camp that lead the father to return to their occupied house in Famagusta. As he prepares to leave the house holding a picture of his missing son and a bag of winter clothes he suddenly faces Osman, his neighbour:

We fell in each other’s arms. ‘You scared me old Osman’, I told him, ‘you really scared me! I though you were…” He didn’t allow me to finish my phrase. ‘Go away Yiannis dear, go away as quickly as you can. The army is coming. They are coming this way. Go quickly to save yourself’ (177).

Maria Charalambous Loizides provides in her book the true story of Meirem, a young Turkish Cypriot living in Larnaca before the invasion that fell in love and married a Greek Cypriot, becoming a Christian for the sake of their love. When he dies at an accident we read that at the funeral the whole family, Greek and Turkish Cypriots along with friends and neighbors were at his wife’s side to mourn their loss.

Besides friendships and love stories the writers document in their work another important aspect of the Greek Turkish friendship on the island, namely their common trade union struggles, their common strikes and labors in the mines, fields, building sites, factories and other work places were they worked side by side for years.

Implications on Cyprus literature

As mentioned earlier, the reflections of Cyprus history, and specifically the 1974 events, in novels for children and young adults have influenced profoundly the literary production of the island. In a percentage of more that 45% of the books of short stories for children and young adults published in the period 1974 – 2004 the writers include stories about the tragic events of 1974.  Out of the 27 writers that have written in this period of thirty years 16 have published relevant stories, while 12 out of these 16 writers have confined their work in books that exclusively revolve around the ongoing drama of Cyprus.

Interestingly 11 of these writers are women; this significant pre-eminence of women writers is one of the most important trends and developments in the recent literary history of the island that should be further researched. The profound impact of the coup and the invasion seems to have sensitized women writers and urged them towards creating some of the most important samples of literary work referring to this period. It is also noteworthy that from the 12 writers that have written exclusively about 1974, eight are educators, having served mostly in primary schools. This fact is also an indication of the impact of the events on the emotional and everyday world of children that teachers witnessed in their professional lives and later documented in their stories.

Examining the publication dates of the books referring to the invasion and the refugees, a conclusion that arises is that most were published in the first decade after the events; from 1990 – 2004 we note only three such publications. The first two books were published two years after the invasion, in 1976; however several writers who published books later on did write in the early days, with their stories appearing in daily newspapers and in children’s journals of the period, mostly ‘Pediki Chara’, which is still published today by the Cyprus Teacher Association. As time went by writers turned to other themes and genres and this explains the decline in the number of relevant published books. This decline could also be attributed in the difficulties encountered in the publication processes; all books were published on the island by the writers themselves, with the exception of two books being republished by a publishing house in Athens. Relevant to this issue are also the illustrations of these books; three out of the 15 have no pictures and in the rest they are black and white. Although none of the books is illustrated by a professional illustrator, some writers have collaborated with artists, art teachers and children or have used photographs. As a result, the quality of the whole publication varies accordingly.

Implications for educational practice

In the stories we have referred to in this paper a common goal is the preservation of the memory of the occupied lands, the cultivation of hope, belief and optimism of returning. As we have demonstrated many stories focus on the positive relations of the two communities and their ability to live together peacefully, and condemn any violent acts and vengeance. However, in many stories there is an effort to also cultivate militant morale for asserting the occupied lands. Many realistic and often raw descriptions of the events of the invasion, and to a much lesser degree of the coup, are provided in the stories, which today raise significant questions and dilemmas for education. Understandably, the writers of the period having experienced the violence and the monstrosities of those days expressed their feelings of anger and grief in a way that would depict the Turks and the invasion in the most negative way and subsequently stress the need for a pacifist and antiwar stance among their audiences. Children need to know about historical facts and historical circumstances that lead nations to specific actions, they need to study how these actions impact every aspect of life and what consequences have to be paid by generations that follow.

Vagianos in his book on Teaching history through literature (1995) notes that when we teach history using literature we teach it in a cognitive level but also  in an experimental level, that is also effective, since it vivid and descriptive due to the language and the emotions used.

As many of the stories that provide shocking descriptions of acts and emotions of the period are included in school anthologies in all primary and higher education a crucial question arises; where does the goal to create aversion and repugnance stop and where does fanaticism and hatred begin?  It is crucial for educators in Cyprus schools to discuss these feelings explicitly and honestly with children of all ages if lessons are to be learned and wounds are to be healed, especially in periods such the one we are currently undergoing, with new negotiations taking place for a final settlement of the Cyprus problem. In the multilingual and multicultural world we all live in today, where cultivating tolerance and acceptance are vital in order to coexist, education has a central role to play so as children will acquire those skills and experiences that will prepare them for an uncertain and demanding future. Children’s literature is a powerful tool in the hands of educators around the globe, especially when it reflects historical events; the examples we provided in this paper and their implications on education undoubtedly corroborate this fact.

Costas Katsonis and Elena Kyriakides, Cyprus

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 2008

Avraamidou, M. (1994). Beautiful Sundays. (in Greek). Athens: Patakis

Anagnostopoulos, V. (1988). Trends and developments of children’s literature in the decade 1970-1980. (in Greek). Athens: Friends’ publications.

Charalambous – Loizides, M. (1988). Sky do not envy us. (in Greek). Larnaca.

Epaminondas, S. (). The wasp nest and other short stories. Nicosia: Morfotiki Ltd.

Goss, G. (2003).  Helping  children think about peace. Βοοκbird, 41: 4.

Hadjihanna, F. (1979). Flowers and dreems  (in Greek). Nicosia.

Katsonis, K. (2003). Melina of Kyrenia. (in Greek). Athens: Epifaniou Publications.

Lepman, J. (2002). A Bridge of Children’s Books (the inspiring autobiography of a remarkable woman). Dublin: The O’Brien Press.   

Panayides, P. (1984). Deep-rooted roots. (in Greek). Limassol.

Poulcheriou, K. (1976). Spitokalivaki mou. (in Greek). Nicosia.

Pyliotou, M. (1976) The wolves and the Red Riding Hood. (in Greek). Nicosia: POED Publications

Pyliotou, M. (1989) 1974 in Cyprus Children’s Literature.(in Greek). Cyprus Literature for children. Nicosia: EDON publications.

Theodosiadou, M. (1981). Of sorrow and hope (in Greek). Nicosia: POED Publications.

Tsoulli, E. (1980). Rootless flowers. Nicosia.

Tsuchiya, Y. (1988). Faithful elephants: a true story of animals, people and war.( transl. by Tomoko Tsuchiya Dykes). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tzouva-Paikkou, M. (2001). Children’s short stories: Alasios, Andre and his little dog. (in Greek). Nicosia: Epifaniou Publications.
Vagianos, G. (1995). Teaching history through literature. (in Greek). Athens: Hellin Publications.